Pacing and cognitive development


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Here’s a bit of a loaded question: does your pacing strategy — even? positive splits? negative splits? — reveal something about your cognitive development? I blogged a few weeks ago about the perennial question of 1,500-metre tactics and whether going out a fast pace is smart or stupid, so I was interested (and amused) to see a new study from Dominic Micklewright at the University of Essex, just posted online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, called “Pacing Strategy in Schoolchildren Differs With Age and Cognitive Development.”

It’s actually a really neat and thought-provoking study. Here’s the gist: the researchers studied four groups of children (aged 5-6, 8-9, 11-12, and 14). Each group was asked to run a time trial over a distance that took them about four minutes to finish — so similar to the demands of a 1,500-metre race in adults, actually. Here’s what the pacing for each group looked like:

The basic conclusion from this data:

Younger schoolchildren with less advanced cognitive development exhibited a negative pacing strategy indicating an inability to anticipate exercise demand. Older schoolchildren at a more advanced stage of cognitive development exhibited a more conservative U-shaped pacing strategy characterised by faster running speeds during the first 15% and last 20% of the run.

In other words, young kids go out very fast and fade from the front, while older kids understand the pain that awaits them and hold some energy back until they’re sure they’ll make it to the finish. But there’s more to it than that. The researchers also administered tests to determine where the kids fit into Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development — and they saw roughly the same pattern: kids with a lower stage of cognitive development went out hard and got progressively slower, while the kids with more advanced cognitive development had the U-shaped curve — which, I should point, is exactly the pacing strategy adopted by world-record-setters at distances from 1,500 to 10,000 metres ever since the IAAF started keeping records.

I should clarify (before Rob Watson kicks my ass) that the link between pacing between cognitive development and pacing is mostly related to age. Once you’re a grown-up (and in particular, once you’re racing against other people rather than just against the clock), there are many different reasons to adopt different pacing strategies. Let me repeat: I’m not saying that going hard means you’re dumb!

What this research is really about is “anticipatory regulation of effort” — which is basically just a rebranding of what’s sometimes called the central governor theory. (Debate about the central governor has become so personal that many scientists seem unable to actually read new studies about it, instead criticizing the ideas that were proposed 10 years ago.) Here’s how the authors of the new study put the idea into evolutionary context:

The survival of certain animals is contingent upon the successful deployment of energy conservation strategies such as the regulation of feeding, physical exertion and rest. Such energy conservation strategies are imperative to successfully completing predetermined survival activities within biological and environmental constraints. Humans use similar energy regulation strategies to successfully conduct their daily living activities albeit with less emphasis than other animals on survival. This is particularly apparent in the way humans pace themselves during athletic activity to avoid premature fatigue.

What’s fascinating is that this anticipatory pacing strategy appears to be hardwired into us. By the time we reach the third Piaget stage, we’re already pacing ourselves in exactly the same (much-debated) way that the runners who set distance-running world records do: a fast start, a slower middle, then a fast finish.

3 Replies to “Pacing and cognitive development”

  1. “this anticipatory pacing strategy appears to be hardwired into us”

    Perhaps that conclusion is well-supported by the paper, which I have not read. But it is not supported by your summary. How thoroughly, in terms of power and significance, did the researchers succeed in disentangling “cognitive development” from mere learning by experience, for which age must be a powerful confounding factor? And even if we grant that cognitive development is the essential factor, there is not a consensus that this itself is entirely a hardwired process. Even Piaget’s contemporary, Vygotsky, disagreed with that assertion.

  2. @Phil: You’re right that the statement isn’t supported in my blog post. It’s supported only weakly in the paper itself, as the authors themselves acknowledge:

    “One of the difficulties of a cross-sectional study such as ours is seceding the effect of intellectual development from other maturation factors upon pacing strategy. Ideally, pacing profiles should be compared between two age-matched groups of schoolchildren with high and low scores of cognitive development. In our study this type age-matched comparison was not possible because there was an insufficient number of young schoolchildren with high conservation scores [which were used to assess Piaget stages] and old schoolchildren with low conservation scores. Nevertheless, we were able to partially resolve this issue by controlling for age using ANCOVA when comparing the pacing profiles of schoolchildren with different conservation scores. The results of such analysis did show that, even when age was controlled for, pacing differences were evident between the different conservation groups.”

    Even then, my use of the term “hardwired” is probably a bit too strong. I do think the distinctive “U-shaped” pacing strategy tells us something about how our brains work, rather than just about what the world is teaching us through experience. After all, what most us THINK we’ve learned from experience is that even pacing is best. That’s what seems most logical. But the real data tells us that, at least in running, the optimal strategy for 5K and 10K world-record holders (fast start, slower middle, faster finish) is also the one that kids seem to naturally stumble upon once they reach the age of about 11.

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